Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Uganda's "Kill The Gays" Bill

This week, the Parliament of Uganda has revisited a controversial piece of anti-gay legislation that was originally proposed by an MP in 2009, with fears that it may be hastily implemented before the Ugandan Parliamentary session ends next week.

Although homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, earning you up to 14 years in prison, the bill, proposed by MP David Bahati would originally have made the offence of “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by death. The bill defines “aggravated homosexuality” as homosexual acts with a disabled person or a person under the age of 18, as well as being an active homosexual with HIV. Also, the bill in its originally proposed form contained a provision for capital punishment for ‘serial offenders’ under other parts of the law.

Despite worldwide condemnation of the bill, it looks likely that it may pass, apparently having the support of "99% of MPs" (according to John Otekat Emile, an independent MP). However, it may not pass in the form it was originally proposed. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, despite voicing his support for the bill, has said that he thinks the death penalty provisions are too harsh. The Minister for Ethics and Integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, has also said on several occasions that the death penalty provisions will be dropped, and even Bahati himself has said that the death penalty provision is “something we are moving away from”.

So, this is a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. Obviously the fact that the Ugandan government now no longer proposes to execute people for being homosexual is a good thing, but in all the uproar about the death penalty clauses, people seem to have overlooked the other horribly draconian and inhumane parts of the bill that will pass.

It seems likely now that the offence of “aggravated homosexuality” will, instead of being punishable by death, be punishable by life imprisonment. It could also introduce penalties of seven years imprisonment to those who ‘aid, abet, counsel or procure’ homosexual activities, or to anyone who rents a room or house to a homosexual, and penalties of three years to anyone who is aware of an occurrence of homosexual activity and doesn’t report it within 24 hours – including doctors treating patients. It was also proposed that the law be extended to allow extradition back to Uganda for any citizen living abroad who engaged in homosexual activity.

In an email to me, Frank Mugisha, the executive director of SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) said: “The bill if passed whether in its current form or watered down will stigmatize and increase harassment of gay people in Uganda, drive them underground even further, which will hinder them from accessing treatment, and this will increase on the HIV /AIDS pandemic in Uganda.”

So how did Uganda end up taking such regressive steps away from gay rights? Many lay the blame on a workshop organised in Kampala in March 2009, which included talks by three American Evangelical Christians, Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer, all of whom actively oppose gay rights and see homosexuality as a dangerous and promiscuous lifestyle choice which can be cured by prayer. Brundidge himself is a ‘former gay man’. The theme of the conference was ‘The Gay Agenda’, and it featured talks on “"how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how 'the gay movement is an evil institution' whose goal is 'to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity'”. Some of the most vocal advocates for the bill attended and reported on these sessions.

Uganda’s opposition to gay rights may also stem from the country’s fear of HIV. Uganda is a rare success story when it comes to HIV, with the infection rate dropping from 30% in the 1980s to 6.4% by the end of 2008, despite modern contraceptive use being low. If the citizens are told by their religious and governmental leaders that homosexuality leads to an increased HIV infection rate, is it really surprising that they will turn against homosexuals?

Whatever its cause, since 2009, anti-homosexual feeling has run at an all time high in Uganda. Prominent gay rights activist David Kato was murdered in January of 2011, after successfully suing the country’s Rolling Stone newspaper, who had published his picture in 2010 (alongside the pictures of other ‘known homosexuals’), with a banner saying ‘Hang Them’.

Regardless of whether this bill passes into law in its original form or an amended one, or indeed at all, now is the time for the international community to extend a hand to the gay people of Uganda to try and stem the tide of human rights abuses that they are suffering.

EDIT: It looks like they've dropped the bill from this Parliamentary session - whether this is for good or not, we don't know. Before last week it looked like they had quietly shelved it - offering it next to no attention for 18 months, and a new Parliament is due to be sworn in over the next week. We'll have to see, and keep our fingers crossed that the legislation is not enacted. However, something still remains to be done about advancing LGBT rights in Uganda, not just stopping regressive measures.


  1. Thanks for this, Hope the update you've got there is correct - I honestly expected it to pass this time. Of course, we still need to worry about the wider human rights crisis in Uganda and the increasing brutality of Museveni's regime.

  2. FWIW There's a petition HERE.

    They're up to nearly 1,500,000 names, and still going.

    (The phone number box is optional, though it doesn't say so.)